Reviewed: December 10, 2007
Released: November 19, 2007
In the world of first-person shooters it has always boiled down to two major players, id and Epic. Even back in the 90’s when 3D gamers were just coming into their own, all you ever heard about was Quake vs. Unreal. Both games started off as standard FPS titles then quickly moved into online multiplayer gaming. Whatever Quake did, Unreal was quick to follow-up and improve.
Earlier this year we saw the latest evolution of Quake multiplayer in Enemy Territory, and now Epic follows with Unreal Tournament III; not entirely an inventive title in name or gameplay, but definitely a major contender in the war of the FPS and certainly a major first strike at invading the home console market when the same title ships exclusively on the PS3 later this month.
For as technically advanced as Unreal Tournament III ends up being, I was surprised that the gameplay really hasn’t evolved all that much since the early days of the franchise back in 1999. There has always been a steady progression of inventive weapons and clever game modes leading up to UT 2004, arguably one of the best online shooters ever made, but with more than three years of dev time I was just hoping for a little extra “WOW”.
Side by side with Enemy Territory the games look and even play quite similarly, but with the class based system and defined missions objectives based on character roles, this year’s Quake installment gets the overall nod for sheer inventiveness. That’s not to say Unreal Tournament III is lacking in fun or challenging gameplay…far from it. Given a choice of the two titles, I much prefer the casual yet frantic nature of UT3 whether playing alone or online.
Unreal Tournament III delivers six modes of multiplayer action including DM, Team DM, CTF, VCTF (CTF with vehicles), Duel, and the new and totally amazing Warfare mode, an advanced and highly improved version of 2004’s Onslaught mode.
For the lonely gamer there is an outstanding single-player campaign mode that will not only offer many hours of challenging gameplay, it will also server as a great training tool before you tackle real humans online. To help bridge that online gap you can play the campaign in either Private (solo) mode or Public where your campaign is added to the online servers and other games can drop in and help you out.
For veterans of the series or even the FPS genre, most of the modes are pretty standard fare and you’ll slip right into the intuitive controls and gameplay. Not much has changed in three years (or even eight). Deathmatch modes have you racing around complex levels trying to reach the frag limit before the other team.
CTF is a race across a battlefield to grab the enemy flag and return it to your base. Your flag has to be in your base to score and to add to the challenge you cannot use vehicles or the translocator (teleport device) while holding the flag. In VCTF you can use various vehicles to race across the levels, but once you grab the flag you are limited to your hoverboard for transportation. The risk versus speed reward is that if you get shot while carrying the flag (or power orb) you’ll get knocked off your board, drop whatever you were carrying and are stunned for several seconds.
Warfare is the new and easily the best mode of Unreal Tournament III even if it’s not entirely a new or original concept. In its simplest form this mode is nothing more than territorial acquisition, much like Onslaught or Domination modes from other FPS games. Where the strategy lies is that each node is linked to the next, creating a linear progression across very large maps leading to the enemy power core. In order to destroy that power core you have to be in control of the Prime Node adjacent to their main core. It’s a huge tug-of-war battle that can take a long time to win and offer plenty of opportunities for team tactics.
These Warfare maps usually have one or more additional control points scattered about the map. Taking control of these will help tilt the balance of power by giving you access to bigger and better weapons or vehicles. In one mission you must have possession of a bridge node in order for your tank to cross a chasm into enemy territory. You can be the one attacking the bridge node or driving the tank, or even a bit of both.
One strategic element to the Warfare mode is the energy orb. These can be carried around the map and used to reinforce nodes you already possess or instantly take over an enemy node without having to wear down its shield. If and when you do come across an unattended enemy orb you have the option to destroy it (and yourself). Not only will you slow down the enemy, you’ll be considered a hero. Or you can just wait for the timer to expire on any unattended node and it will automatically self-destruct.
Even when you are playing a private match you are far from alone. Unreal Tournament III teams you up with at least one other fighter, usually several, especially in the Warfare missions. Some missions have you facing seemingly impossible odds. In one DM level it was me and one other guy versus four blue team fighters. No matter how well I played I would always get beat by one or two frags at the very end, simply because we were outnumbered two-to-one.
Unreal Tournament III adds a nifty feature in the form of Cards. When you win some missions you will get a Card that you can apply to any upcoming mission. Some cards must be played in the following mission, but most you can save when things get tough like the one I was stuck on in the previous paragraph. I found I had a card that reduced the enemy team by two members. Now, with the odds even, Othello and myself were able to easily defeat the blue team. There are a variety of cards that do all sorts of things from helping you out to hurting the enemy.
Campaign missions are laid out across an impressive global map. Sometimes you have the option to choose your mission but this is merely an illusion because no matter which mission you pick from any choice, you’ll always end up having to do the other one(s) regardless, so it’s not like you have multiple paths to the finale. It does give you the opportunity to try something else if one mission is giving you a hard time, and possibly earn a card to help with the harder missions.
The story for the campaign is pretty weak and mostly told through short missions briefings and a few impressive cutscenes using game engine graphics. Considering each mission plays out like any other online match, I much preferred the sporting event style of presentation used in UT 2003. And just when you do start to get interested in the narrative, Epic tosses in one of their trademark cliffhanger endings. Perhaps this is their strategy for job security.
Unreal Tournament set the benchmark for AI back in 1999 and they continue to impress in 2007 with some of the best human-like AI for both enemies and team-bots. Left on their own, you can usually count on your team to be somewhat effective. I usually like to take on the role of flag collector in CTF missions, but I do that when humans are playing as well. I just like the thrill of snaking my way through a raging battlefield while everyone else fights among themselves. While you can count on the AI for CTF and DM game modes things get a bit trickier in Warfare, where you must balance the need to attack versus defend.
The brilliant Order system is back and relatively unchanged from the earlier games. Just hit the V key to bring up the order menu, select the type of order, select the order, and assign the order to an individual or the entire team. It’s basically a four-tap system and you have complete control over your team in ordering them to defend a position or advance and attack.
As good as the AI is, there are some moments of stupidity, both for the enemy and my own team. I’ve come across numerous enemies that just stand there perfectly still as I unload into them until dead. Then there are moments where my team seems totally focused on defending an optional node that is building a Leviathan rather than defending our Power Node which, when destroyed, ends the mission.
Gameplay is fast and frantic with precise and intuitive controls. The WADS cluster handles movement and as always, double tapping in any direction sprints in that direction. You also have a double-jump to clear those large gaps or reach unreachable heights. Despite being classified as an FPS, you’ll spend more than your fair share of time in external camera views, either while riding the hoverboard or driving around in any of the amazing vehicles and aircraft.
Vehicles play an incredibly important role, especially in Warfare. You steer with the WADS and generally have full aiming control with the mouse, even to the point where you can be driving in one direction and aiming a tank turret in the opposite. You have fast buggies with jet turbos, hovercraft, attack choppers, tanks, and the formidable Leviathan that is both tank, SAM launcher, and also has four optional seats for teammates, complete with their own defensive gun turrets.
The newest and most disturbing vehicles added to the game are the new Necris machines like the Nightshade, a stealth tank, and the terrifying Darkwalker that towers above the landscape on spidery legs like the Striders in Half-Life 2 or the alien war machines in War of the Worlds. Scavengers are even more like spiders and totally creepy, and the Fury is a powerful Necris air unit that is only topped by the Nemesis, a massive and powerful battle tank.
To complete the Unreal Tournament III package we get the standard comprehensive stat tracking system that would make Xbox Live Leaderboards envious. It’s definitely a great way to earn global bragging rights. Plus, if you prefer to build your games rather than play them, Unreal comes with an impressive modding package that will allow you to tweak existing levels and mutate various elements of the gameplay or build your own levels from the ground up. The modders of today are the game designers of tomorrow so you can expect to find countless downloads and customizations online in what is arguably one of the most devoted communities of any online game to date.
If you had any doubt that Epic created this game you only need look at the character designs, at least the one for the heavily armored humans who seem to be borrowing their wardrobe from the guys over at Gear of War. It’s not a big deal – everyone is using that same style of body armor design this year. The alien models are truly impressive and downright scary if you actually live long enough in a face-to-face encounter to scrutinize them.
Vehicles are easily the highlight of the game when it comes to model design and textures. The model for a single tank probably exceeds the polygon count for an entire level of Duke Nukem 3D, with subtle movements for all working parts, pitted textures, and explosive deconstruction when those hit points fall to zero. Tires, tank treads, hover props, engine casings, gun turrets, cannon barrels, all fly off in random directions complete with fire and smoke and spinning camera angles.
Most of the personal combat takes place in first-person view allowing you the best view of some of the most inventive weapons in the history of the FPS genre. Not only do these game models look fantastic bobbing up and down in front of you, their primary and secondary fire effects are just as fun to watch, as they are to unleash on the enemy. They all animate with minute detail and reflect various colors and intensities of light.
But it all boils down to level design and Epic has gone the extra mile to create massive battlefields for Warfare modes and intricately designed interiors for plenty of hide-and-seek DM and Team DM games. The overall visual design, while colorful and even a bit exaggerated, is far more realistic in nature than any previous UT game. Everything is dark and moody for the most part. There are a few standout levels like the one with the raging sandstorm that totally screws with your vision.
Menus and setup screens are awesome. The planetary mission select screen is gorgeous with shimmering water and highlighted continents showing who possesses what territory and where you can fight next. The theme of Red versus Blue is cleverly integrated into the levels, so you can always glance at your surroundings to know when you are inside enemy territory.
It’s also worth noting that while most new PC games are requiring major system upgrades that cost as much as a game console, Unreal Tournament III ran like a dream on my sorta-next-gen system running at 2.4GHz with 3 GB ram and a 512 MB 7950 GTX video card. This same system came to a crawl with Crysis, but UT3 was able to run at 1600x1200 with all detail levels set to high at a fluid 42fps. I look forward to seeing this powerful and highly optimized engine in future titles.
The powerful sound design is second to none and a perfect complement to the visual presentation. There are so many weapons and vehicles that I was amazed they could come up with so many creative (and believable) sounds for multiple fire modes, engine noises, and powerful explosions.
The music is mostly ambient, almost environmental in nature, not that you would ever hear any type of score with all the gunplay and continuous explosions going on. You’ll hear plenty of chatter from your teammates, both on their own and when responding to your orders. There is also some excellent voice acting and scripted dialogue in the cutscenes, and of course, all those fun verbal taunts are back and funnier than ever.
And even though the sporting event presentation was left in the past we still get the deep-voice commentary announcing our “killing sprees”, “double kills”, “rampage”, and many other specialty triggers. You’ll even get some useful battlefield updates and node status thank to the commentary.
Unreal Tournament III is huge, both in the solo campaign and the virtually endless world of online play. It took me nearly 16 hours to finish a private campaign and I’ve already lost track of the countless hours spent online fragging and getting fragged. With so many amazing maps and challenging game modes, you’ll be playing this game until the next one arrives.
And even if you do tire of the included content, there is always the level editor so you can tweak what you have or build your own maps ensuring that the game will live on long into the new year.
Epic seems to play it safe when it comes to their Unreal franchise. After experiencing the breathtaking Gears of War I was really looking forward to something new in Unreal Tournament III, but we end up with just slightly more than the solid foundation of previous UT titles. Admittedly, it borrows on all the best parts of those games then enhances it with totally next-gen graphics and an amazing Warfare mode, but it’s hard to shake that feeling of “been there done that”, especially in the more traditional DM and Team DM modes. Thankfully, the new weapons and vehicles really mask most of the sameness, and the massively complex levels are easily the best of any in the genre. Even after hours and hours of gameplay I can still get lost in them.
I’m not ashamed to admit that UT 2004 is one of the first games I install on any new system I build, but that title has finally been replaced by the only game that ever could replace it. If you’ve never played an Unreal game before then now is a great time to start and Unreal Tournament III is going to rock your world.